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NI: Final Stage of Bill making it illegal to offer help outside abortion clinics postponed after failing to gain enough support

A Bill to make it illegal to offer assistance to women outside of abortion clinics in Northern Ireland has been postponed after it failed to secure cross-community support.

Claire Bailey MLA had attempted to fast-track the Bill so that it might be heard ahead of schedule on Tuesday 22 March. However, members of both the TUV and DUP objected to this debate being brought forward. The Final Stage of the Bill will now be discussed on Thursday 24 March.

In a previous debate on the Bill, Jim Allister, leader of the TUV pointed out that legislation already exists to prosecute harassment saying: “Under legislation that presently exists… harassment is already a criminal offence, and under the Public Order Order 1987, disorderliness and all that goes with it is already a criminal offence”.

The sponsor of the Bill, Ms Bailey, who previously worked with a Marie Stopes abortion clinic, said that the Bill was “urgently needed”.

DUP MLA, Pam Cameron, said that legal concerns remain “unaddressed” and warned that the Bill “will almost certainly result in protracted legal action”.

Only 13 of the 6,412 submissions from members of the public supported the Bill.

The Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill would allow the introduction of censorship zones outside abortion clinics and hospitals offering abortions across Northern Ireland. This would make it a criminal offence to “influenc[e]… a… person [seeking an abortion], whether directly or indirectly” within “safe access zones”. The Bill would effectively criminalise offers of assistance in these censorship zones.

At Committee Stage of the Bill, a public consultation was undertaken on the Bill and only 13 of the 6,412 submissions from members of the public supported the Bill. Despite this overwhelming opposition from among the general public, the Committee decided to progress the Bill.

In 2018, then UK Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, when rejecting calls to introduce censorship zones outside abortion clinics in England, said: “introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response”.

“The main activities reported to us that take place during protests include praying, displaying banners and handing out leaflets. There were relatively few reports of the more aggressive activities”.

Right To Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson, said: “It is vitally important that people from Northern Ireland contact their MLAs about this Bill and urge them to sign a Petition of Concern”.

“So far, 29 MLAs have voted against the Bill at every stage of its progress. If just 1 extra MLA joins these 29 MLAs to sign a Petition of Concern, the Bill will effectively not be able to proceed and will not become law”.

“Just two years ago in Northern Ireland, unborn children effectively had the same basic protections in the law as everybody else did. Now, if citizens in Northern Ireland do not act, it could become illegal to offer a woman help or an alternative to abortion outside an abortion clinic”.

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